Friday, April 25, 2014

Grim, Bleak Stuff (Good Friday sermon)

Good Friday, April 18, 2014

            Some of us, this Lent, read Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow.  It is a book focused on prayer, but it is not her first book on faith.  Lamott did not grow up in a family of faith.  My parents worshipped at the church of The New York Times, and we bowed down before our antique hi-fi cabinet, which held the Ark of the Covenant – Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk albums.  So, to recap, my parents, who were too hip and intellectual to pray, worshipped mostly mentally ill junkies (Help, Thanks, Wow, 17)  Lamott came to faith as an adult, came to faith out of a number of difficult experiences, and has discovered that faith does not necessarily make all the difficulties go away.
            In one of her earlier books, reflecting on her life and faith, Plan B, Lamott offers some thoughts about Good Friday.  It’s a sad day, of loss and cruelty; and all you have to go on is faith that the light shines in the darkness, and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it (274).  She then goes on to offer some of her most profound words: Hope is not about proving anything.  It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak [stuff] {original: shit} anyone can throw at us. (275)  If you know Anne Lamott, you may know that I had to edit her writing a little here, substituting a five-letter “s” word – “stuff,” for the four-letter “s” word in her book.  Hope is choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff anyone can throw at us.
            Grim, bleak, stuff.  The story of Good Friday is a grim, bleak story.  It is a story of betrayal.  It is a story of the misuse of power – both political and religious.  It is a story of abandonment.  It is a story of dehumanization.  It is a story about fear, and the use of fear.  It is a story about pain and death.
            Difficult as it is, we need to look this grim, bleak stuff right in the eye.  We need to take this grim, bleak stuff seriously.  It is part of our world.  Anne Lamott: “Darkness is our context” (Plan B, 275).  Darkness is our context.  In this morning’s newspaper we read about the disturbing rise in heroin usage in our area.  It is a problem plaguing the entire country.  Earlier this week, in Kansas City, a 73 year-old man, who seemed to have dedicated much of his time and energy to hating, shot and killed three people.  The places of the killings were Jewish, but none of the victims was.  On April 7, in Homs, Syria a Dutch priest, Father Frans van der Lught was executed, shot twice in the head by an unknown assailant.  Father Frans had been in Syria since 1966 and refused to leave even as violence escalated.  He was committed to helping the poor, regardless of their religious affiliation.
            Earlier this week, I spent a day learning more about human trafficking, sex trafficking to be more specific.  I had the privilege of learning from Rachel Lloyd, a woman who experienced the commercial sex trade first-hand and went on to write about it and to try and do something about it.  In her memoir, Girls Like Us, she discusses how she was helped leave “the life” by a church.  She writes that she never “fully shared” her past, though the church folks knew she had been through some stuff (275).  Monday evening, Lloyd shared that she did try once to share a bit more with a woman who she considered her closest friend in the church, but that this friend backed off, signaling that she really could not hear Rachel Lloyd’s whole story.
            We in the church need to hear, to see, to look the grim, bleak stuff in the eye.  If we are going to reach out into the world with the healing love of Jesus, we need to have some idea of the depth of the healing needed.
            Looking the grim, bleak stuff right in the eye does not just mean looking out there – at the cruelty and destructiveness and pain in the world.  It also means looking into our own hearts and souls.  There can be some grim, bleak stuff inside of us, too.  Sometimes our lives get entangled with grim, bleak stuff in the world.  The first question we ask parents of children being baptized, or those affirming their faith is, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”  That’s a pretty heavy question, but it tries to get us to see that sometimes we can get entangled in grim, bleak stuff – spiritual forces of wickedness.  We can become complicit with grim, bleak stuff – evil powers of this world.  Ordinary Germans got caught up in the Holocaust.  Ordinary Russians got caught up in the police state and gulag system of the Soviets.  Ordinary Chinese got caught up in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  Ordinary Americans got caught up in the slave system.
            Grim, bleak stuff inside.  We are invited to change – to confession and repentance.  Some of our grim, bleak stuff is not our complicity, or our wrongdoing, but may also be our own buried hurts and pains.  We need to look at that too – our wounds, our hurts, our disappointments, our pain.  We need to see how deep the need for healing is in our own lives.
            When we can confront the grim, bleak stuff, when we can take it seriously and look it in the eye, then we can testify to the power of love and the strength of hope that we find in the God of Jesus Christ.
            In his book, Loving Jesus, Mark Allan Powell writes about sharing the faith.  Have you ever heard the testimony of someone who has no doubt… who is certain that he or she has found the kingdom: Before I knew Jesus, my life was a mess.  I was on drugs.  Or maybe I drank too much.  I was unfaithful to my spouse.  I couldn’t keep my kids in line.  I was mean to my dog.  I lost my job.  I was unhappy and bitter.  I was a real mess.  But then I found Jesus and he turned me into the wonderful person that I am today.  And I’m here to tell you the good news: if you accept Christ into your life, you can be just as together as I am.  Your life can be as good as mine.  These people do not make good evangelists. (Loving Jesus, 126)
            Of course, I believe Jesus can and does make life better.  I rejoice with those for whom the power of love in Jesus helped them overcome destructive behaviors, or heal damaged relationships, or healed deep wounds. There may be those whose faith leads to a problem free life.  For most of us, though, the grim, bleak stuff does not simply disappear.  We lose our way a bit.  We continue to know hurt and disappointment.  People we love get sick.  People we love die.  On Good Friday, I take seriously the grim, bleak stuff and the reality that it does not simply disappear from most lives.  I also take seriously that hope is choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff anyone can throw at us.  The grim, bleak stuff can keep coming.  It may not magically disappear from our lives inside or out.  But there is something stronger, bigger.

            Today is a day of grim, bleak stuff.  It is a day for confession.  It is a day for honesty.  It is a day for authenticity.  It is also a day to recognize the strength of hope and the power of love.  It is day to remember that God, in Jesus, met the grim, bleak stuff with eyes wide open, and that love prevailed.  Amen.

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